County prepares for budget crunch

Published 7:22 am Friday, July 30, 2010

As the county begins talks about it’s 2011 budget, the discussion will boil down to a choice between paying more or having fewer services.

While a final budget isn’t completed until around December, the county started discussing the 2011 budget last month.

The discussions are moving beyond simple reductions to more serious cuts.

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“Realistically, you can tighten your belt here and there, but not to the level that we have to,” said County Coordinator Craig Oscarson. “We’re a service business. We’re providing services to the public, and the public has to decide whether those services are needed or wanted anymore.”

Department heads are expected to turn in their individual budgets by the end of July, and then the county’s finance committee will meet with department heads and other groups requesting money — like the historical society and fair board — in August for discussions.

The finance committee then looks at the costs of the requests, and how they would affect the county’s levy. The county adopts it’s proposed levy in September.

The county began discussing the budget in June, but the discussions heat up in August as the county board and department heads will discuss budget proposals.

The county board’s goal is to have a zero percent levy increase, Oscarson said.

The county already had more than $300,000 in state aid cut from the 2011 budget last year, according to Oscarson. The state could cut more funding in the middle of the county’s budget year. Because while the county’s budget year runs from January to December, the state’s fiscal year is July 1 to June 30.

When the state makes cuts mid-year, it’s extremely difficulty for the county to adjust because they’re already partway through a budget year, and certain programs can’t be cut.

Individual departments could be losing grant money.

“For the last few years, the budget has been the big driving force for how we maintain services,” Oscarson said. “We’ve seen some reductions from the state, and we expect to see more. … Over the last number of years, we’ve seen more and more of this cost shifting from the state down to the county without any relief of mandates.”

One of the only ways to get additional funding is to increase the levy, but Oscarson noted that the public, too, is dealing with the effects of the economy.

“That’s been our biggest problem: How do we minimize the financial impact on the public,” Oscarson said. “It’s a tough economy out there.”

The public is a key part of the budgeting process. If the public can’t handle a tax increase, Oscarson said it’s necessary for people to express which county services can be cut or reduced.

“If they’re not willing to pay increased taxes, what are they willing to live without or less of,” Oscarson said.

Where the county can cut, however, is limited due to obligations to public safety and state mandates.

“Typically the areas you can cut, are the areas people typically like to see, like good snowplow service,” Oscarson said.

Sheriff patrol is another area where funding can be reduced, but Oscarson said people often don’t like to cut that form of public safety.

With all the limitations, Oscarson said communication between the public and the county commissioners will be a key.

“The public needs to be asking these questions, and we need to make sure we give them direct and honest answers and not political doublespeak,” Oscarson said.

Mower County’s budget process

•June-July: Department heads start discussing individual budgets, and submit a proposed budget to the finance committee by the end of July.

•August: Finance committee discusses budget requests with department heads, and begins discussing if the levy would need to be changed. County also talks with groups like the historical society and fair board about money requests.

•September: County board adopts a proposed levy.

•August-November: Board, finance committee discusses recommended budget cuts.

•December: County board holds a public budget meeting and sets the levy — it cannot be set higher than the proposed levy.